On Thursday, Sept. 17, Vail Symposium dug into the complicated relationship between the U.S. and Russia.
Ambassador Michael McFaul began his program with the acknowledgment that the United States finds itself in a great power competition with two rivals: China and Russia. For this program, he focused on Russia.
- The term “New Cold War” is gaining currency, so Ambassador McFaul took a moment to compare the old Cold War with the new one. For instance, while the old Cold War featured a quantitative arms race, today the arms race is qualitative. For instance, the ambassador expressed concern that new and emerging Russian delivery vehicles were destabilizing. He also pointed to a shift in the ideological struggle, with today’s competition between capitalist democracy in the West versus “Putinism” in Russia, characterized by conservative nationalism. This orthodox governing is also cropping up in places such as Bulgaria and Turkey, among others. Proxy wars are not as prevalent as they were during the Cold War, but there are new instruments of competition: annexations, sanctions, cyber warfare and assassinations. For example, both the United States and Russia have more people on their sanctions lists than any time during the Cold War.
- In answer to the question, how did we arrive at this point, Ambassador McFaul provided three plausible explanations: the nature of international politics, U.S. policies and Russian domestic politics. It was the third explanation he considered the largest contributor. He noted that during the presidency of Medvedev, the U.S. and Russia cooperated on sanctions on Iran and the new START Treaty. However, that all came to a halt with Putin’s resumption of the presidency. Unlike Medvedev, Putin approaches foreign affairs with a zero-sum mentality. Once demonstrations broke out in places such as Ukraine, Putin blamed these on the United States. Russia became qualitatively more aggressive since Putin resumed power.
- To address the current state of relations between the United States and Russia, Ambassador McFaul provided a good news, bad news dichotomy. The good news is that it is not preordained that the United States and Russia remain in conflict. The current climate is driven by Putin, not some inherent antipathy. But the bad news is that the status quo is likely to continue until Putin leaves office. Since he altered the constitution to remain in power and works out several hours a day, it is unlikely he will depart anytime soon.
Some things the United States could do right now: Go back to a containment policy towards Russia to check Putin’s ambition, renew the New START Treaty and consider a dose of indifference rather than reacting to Putin’s every provocation.